Casual racism is not just an issue for the minorities in Singapore to solve

There is nothing casual about causal racism and there is nothing minor about microaggressions.

Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.

Published: 30 June 2022, 6:07 PM

When is it a joke and when is it casual racism? Where do we draw the line?

To better understand sentiments on everyday racism and the constructive efforts we can make to tackle the issue, the National Youth Council (NYC) partnered with TODAY Online to host an Instagram Live discussion on casual racism in Singapore on Jun 29.

The guests included TODAY journalist Ng Jun Sen, board member of Centre for Interfaith Understanding Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, host of Randomly Relatable podcast Sabrina Shiraz, and Research Associate from the Institute of Policy Studies Shane Pereira.

Here are some takeaways from the hour-long livestream:

1. Racism is not always violent and overt

In Singapore, there’s a tendency for many to claim that racism doesn’t exist as we often associate the term with physical violence.

According to Mr Pereira, finding a concrete definition of what racist behaviour is can be challenging even among scholarly circles.

However, Mr Taib shared that we need to realise that racism manifests as a much broader spectrum and causes harm in various degrees.

With reference to the NYC Discrimination and Inclusivity Poll done in Nov 2021, 68 per cent of youths have personally experienced or witnessed racial discrimination.

Mr Pereira likened casual racism to the water torture machine – while it seems like just a droplet of water, accumulated over time, it can bring about long-lasting effects such as self-doubt and loss of identity.

Mr Taib also emphasised that it’s important to focus on the actual incident and the harm caused rather than fumbling over intention and terminology, which can be quite complex.

For the minorities, drawing the line when such racist remarks are made is important.

Ms Sabrina suggested for victims to express that they’re uncomfortable with such remarks being made the first time it’s being thrown at them.

Letting others know your boundaries is not uncool or petty, she shared.

“If you say it seriously, no one will think it’s a joke.”

That said, it takes a lot of effort and empathy to fraternise with such ignorant people and the onus shouldn’t be on the minorities to correct and educate such misguided behaviour, said Mr Pereira.

2. The majority needs to dispel their own ignorance

As consciousness about racism is not really strong in society at large, the majority is often unsure how to react when situations involving racism arise. 

“How do you translate an experience that is so embedded and unique to a minority race to a majority race, especially because the majority race will never get to experience what we embody?” asked Mr Pereira.

Mr Taib also noted: “(The racism that) we do see in Singapore is particularly associated with stereotypes.

“The everyday lived reality informs how a person develops their personalities and structures in their interactions with other races so it can have harmful effects if it’s not being tackled.”

These stereotypes are often born out of ignorance and lack of cultural sensitivity. To counter such problems, he suggested that Singaporeans widen their social circle and develop personal relationships with people from other races.

“The wider one’s social circle, the more one will normalise human behaviours and not see them through a stereotypical racial lens.”

All guests agreed that the majority need to view the issue of racism as a national problem and not simply one for the minorities to solve.

Other ways the majority can help is by educating themselves on the topic and by being an ally and intervening when racist behaviours are displayed.

3. Racism cannot be solved by legislature alone

Nowadays, kids spend a lot of time on social media – a double-edged sword when it comes to dealing with delicate topics like racism.

Mr Taib said that “social media has to be populated with positive examples of intercultural, inter-ethnic engagements” to nurture a shared conception of and support for the common good.

As for the workplace, Mr Pereira suggested for there to be greater systemic intervention such as in the Human Resource (HR) departments which take charge of the hiring process.

“Policies need to be put in place for greater diversity,” he said.

When asked what is the root of racism, he also brought up an interesting point of how “from the top down, we’re taught to think racially”. He listed examples such as the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) model and housing policies.

However, he noted that “if even at the ground level, (racism) is so amorphous, how do you then enshrine that in law?” 

Laws alone cannot bring about the cohesive society we strive for. What’s essential for a united society, is to foster relationships and bonds of trust with members of different communities. 

“We need to relate to each other beyond race to find our common narratives while still accepting we’re different,” shared Mr Pereira.

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